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[NOTE: In preparing the following blog entry, I fell prey to a classic critical thinking error that goes by several names: “selective reporting,” “confirmation bias,” and “being an idiot.” Though the first several paragraphs are impeccably sound, the section on the Woodward paper is, unfortunately, complete rubbish. I say ‘unfortunately’ because it would have been fascinating if true. Ahh, but that’s how we monkeys always step in it, isn’t it now? I’ll leave the post up as a monument to my shortcomings and prepare another post about the specific way in which I misled myself.]

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You’ve probably seen the studies confirming the low frequency of religious belief among scientists, and the fact that the most eminent scientists are the least likely to believe in a personal God. Very interesting, and not surprising. Uncertainty would have been profoundly maladaptive for most of our species history. The religious impulse is an understandable response to the human need to know, or at least to feel that you do. Once you find a (much) better way to achieve confidence in your conclusions, one of the main incentives for religiosity loses its appeal.

Psychologist James Leuba was apparently the first to ask scientists the belief question in a controlled context. In 1914, Leuba surveyed 1,000 randomly-selected scientists and found that 58 percent expressed disbelief in the existence of God. Among the 400 “greater” scientists in his sample, the figure was around 70 percent.1 Leuba repeated his survey in 1934 and found that the percentages had increased, with 67 percent of scientists overall and 85 percent of the “eminent” group expressing religious disbelief.2

The Larson and Witham study of 1998 returned to the “eminent” group, surveying members of the National Academy of Sciences and finding religious disbelief at 93 percent. All sorts of interesting stats within that study: NAS mathematicians are the most likely to believe (about 15 percent), while biologists were least likely (5.5 percent).

[Here’s where the nonsense begins. Avert your eyes.]

But I recently came across a related statistic about scientists that, given my own background, ranks as the single most thought-provoking stat I have ever seen.

As I’ve mentioned before, my dad died when I was thirteen. It was, and continues to be, the defining event in my life, the beginning of my deepest and most honest thinking about the world and my place in it. My grief was instantly matched by a profound sense of wonder and a consuming curiosity. It was the start of the intensive wondering and questioning that led me (among other things) to reject religious answers on the way to real ones.

Now I learn that the loss of a parent shows a robust correlation to an interest in science. [Not.] A study by behavioral scientist William Woodward was published in the July 1974 issue of Science Studies. The title, “Scientific Genius and Loss of a Parent,” hints at the statistic that caught my attention. About 5 percent of Americans lose a parent before the age of 18. Among eminent scientists, however, that number is higher. Much higher.

According to the study, 39.6 percent of top scientists experienced the death of a parent while growing up—eight times the average.

Let’s hope my kids can achieve the same thirst for knowledge some other way.

Many parents see the contemplation of death as a singular horror, something from which their children should be protected. If nothing else, this statistic suggests that an early encounter with the most profound fact of our existence can inspire a revolution in thought, a whole new orientation to the world — and perhaps a completely different path through it.

[More later.]

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1 Leuba, J. H. The Belief in God and Immortality: A Psychological, Anthropological and Statistical Study (Sherman, French & Co., Boston, 1916).
2 Leuba, J. H. Harper’s Magazine 169, 291-300 (1934).
3Larson, E. J. & Witham, L. Nature 386, 435-436 (1997).
4Woodward, William R. Scientific Genius and Loss of a Parent, in Science Studies, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Jul., 1974), pp. 265-277.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.